Ignite: Entropy

How would you explain a scientific concept in five minutes? Would it help to have slides? What if the slides automatically advance?

This is the concept behind Ignite talks, which are held at volunteer-organized events around the world. Explaining any concept clearly and simply is a challenge, but the strict timing of Ignite talks is especially tricky! I was fortunate enough to be asked to give one last year for the Science Gallery, and since they’ve now put video online I thought I would share it with you all here:

I spoke about entropy, which is an old favorite topic on this blog. And the Science Gallery has quite a few other Ignite talks online for you to peruse. But I think we’d all do well to try to follow the Ignite motto: “Enlighten us, but make it quick!”

What science communicators can learn from #ThatDress

If you were on Twitter, Facebook, or any type of social media last night you were probably inundated with one of two things: the live llama chase in Arizona or #ThatDress. As fascinating as I find camelids, I’m going to talk about the more polarising of the two memes.

that dress

So if you haven’t seen it, there it is. What colour is it? Families, classrooms, and friends feeds are divided on the answer, and it’s sent countless people onto the Google results page for colourblindness. Various experts have weighed in with their opinions and technology has been rolled out to tweak, correct, and perfect the picture. Already there are comprehensive scientific articles and videos about why we perceive the colours differently and the fascinating subject of how humans process and interpret light hitting the back of our eyeballs.

What I find interesting about the phenomenon is the completely organic way it came about, and how a few smart cookies jumped on it to do some science communication. The original post went up on Twitter and within hours it was circulating around the world, drawing comments and creating debates among friends and strangers alike. ‘Experts’ (who have now been proven wrong) shared their opinions and amateurs griped and argued in the comments section of various articles. So what made this such a widely-spread discussion?

Firstly and most importantly, I think it was because it was something everyone could have an opinion of. If you could see the picture, you could form an opinion (based on what the rods and cones in your eyes told you), and that was all you needed to join the fray. Experiences that relate to inherent human perception are great jumping-off points for science communication because they are shared among many backgrounds and profiles. There’s a reason sex, death and food are common popular science subjects – they’re rather unavoidable topics and ones we all share!

Secondly, the potential opinions were so different from one another. Blue and black or white and gold are quite distinct, hardly the difference between ‘is this reddish-pink or pinkish-red?’. Once you stated your opinion you were firmly in one camp or another, and you needed no prior knowledge or expertise to back it up. The debate was accessible, something everyone felt comfortable taking part in. Sometimes science engagement can require a level of knowledge of a subject that is off-putting to non-experts. #ThatDress has no such problem.

So what can we learn from this? I’d say it’s the fact that the most gripping science communication is relatable, approachable, and adaptable. It needs to have a topic that interests people, that relates to experiences or knowledge they already have. It needs to be something they feel comfortable forming opinions and talking about (engagement is a two-way street, after all, and a conversation is far better than a lecture!). And most importantly, it needs to keep its finger on the popular pulse, ready to jump on the zeitgeist of the moment. Sure, a sustained campaign of building interest is important, but there’s nothing like hooking into a meme to reach millions of people who might otherwise not have time for a bit of science communication.

Innovative Technologies

I work in nanoscience, and a lot of new materials and devices are developed where people ask, what is going to be the application of this? Can this displace an established technology (like silicon computer chips) or create a new market? And I was recently reminded of a great quote in response:

The principal applications of any sufficiently new and innovative technology always have been—and will continue to be—applications created by that technology.

That was said by Herbert Kroemer in his Nobel lecture, and it bears thinking about in many contexts both within science and in the broader world. When you’re doing something new, it may not fit neatly into the established hierarchies of technology, science, or industry. That can be good, and in fact it can be groundbreaking, like a present you didn’t know you wanted! Of course, it’s still important to think about how your work fits into the broader picture as it already is, but I think it’s always good to get a reminder to check your premises, that innovation can create its own new niches.

Sweat The Small Stuff

Let’s talk about science! Literally, here I am talking about science, the quantum world, scientists, and answering audience questions from a kindly bunch at Pint of Science this May in Dublin. There is also a bit of a surprise in the middle.

Flatland and Extra Dimensions

What would life be like if you lived in two dimensions instead of three?

Back when I posted about popular science books for non-scientists, one of the suggestions I got after the fact was Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, the 19th century classic by Edwin A. Abbott. Which is absolutely worth reading, and a great example of what I love in science writing (or science fiction): an idea that makes you change your whole perspective on the world and reimagine it from a different point of view.

The idea behind Flatland is this: what would it be like if the world we inhabited were flat instead of 3D? You can imagine it as living within a piece of paper, or on the surface of a table. The notion of up and down would be meaningless; we’d only have left and right, and front and back. So we’d be moving in two dimensions rather than three, and we’d also perceive everything around us to have only two dimensions. There wouldn’t be any going over a fence, or peeking under a door. If a thing blocked your way, it would block it completely, and everything behind it would be completely invisible. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to pass through things in Flatland, the same way you can’t in the real world. So if a person stopped directly in front of you, you’d have to pass to either side, or not at all.

There’s a lot of social commentary in Flatland as well, satire aimed at Victorian England that comments on gender divisions, class hierarchies, and dogmatism against new ideas. It’s worth a full read for that, though its examination of spatial dimensions is what’s kept it famous.

Life in Flatland may seem like an academic abstraction. But actually, while our world is three-dimensional, there are some things in it which effectively have only two dimensions, especially in the world of nanoscience. The touted wonder material graphene is effectively two-dimensional, because in the third dimension it’s only one atom thick. That means that electrons moving through graphene are effectively in a two-dimensional environment, a Flatland, and can’t use the third dimension to go around each other. More two-dimensional materials are being discovered every day, and taking one dimension of a material to the nanoscale while leaving the others large changes the physical laws in that material significantly!

And what if there were more dimensions to the world? What if instead of three dimensions to space, there were a fourth, or a fifth? In that case, life here in three dimensions would seem like Flatland, without the fourth dimension to move through. Some physicists studying string theory think there may in fact be additional spatial dimensions, but that they must be curled up within the three we know in order to be undetectable.

So the idea of Flatland, a world where there are only two dimensions instead of the usual three, isn’t just a science fiction classic, it’s also a valuable thought experiment that ties into both nanoscience and string theory!

The Water Cycle and The Future

I’ve always loved water. My favourite sport is swimming, because of how it feels to have water holding you up. And when I was young, any time it rained I’d run outside and just walk for ages in the rain: I loved the smell and the cool of it. Admittedly, rain was a rarity in my childhood, since I grew up in New Mexico in the US, which is all mountains and desert. I can see why here in Ireland, where rain is so much more common, you see fewer people rushing to the streets each time it rains. But in my desert home, one of the things I found fascinating is that water has a story, a history just like us, it has somewhere it came from and somewhere it’s going. When we see the rain fall, it’s evaporated from the ground, from lakes, from the sea. And that same rain will be absorbed by the ground and stay in it before rising again, or freezing into ice caps, or melting and flowing again to the sea. Here in Ireland, the clouds come in off the ocean, so the water in our rain is evaporated sea water.

We can think of the water on the world like the water in our own bodies. We can run and get sweaty, and the water on our skin evaporates away. We can drink in water, filling our insides the same way that aquifers under the surface of the earth are filled with water. And then we can release that water given time, the same way that solid land loses some of its water to the seas. But because the earth is so big, it also has weather on its surface, clouds and rainfall, and as far as I know I’ve never sweated enough to make it rain.

But how quickly water moves through this cycle depends on the weather, the same way it does for our bodies. You sweat more when it’s hot and humid, like now, and less if it’s cold or dry, right? Well water is affected the same way, by how warm the surface of the earth is. In hot conditions, more water will evaporate off the earth’s surface and off of plants, which can stimulate more weather like rain and thunderstorms… unless it’s very dry! So where I grew up, desert plants have to work really hard to hang onto water, because it’s such a precious resource and the heat and dryness cause it to go away really quickly. Plants here don’t have that issue, as there is plenty of water to go around!

We are changing how the water cycles through our world, though. When people build dams, cut down forests, pasture animals, build cities, or burn fuel for energy, that changes where water can flow and how long it stays in the air. All of our activities affect the flow of water through the sky, the sea, and the earth.

In fact, greenhouse gases from our human civilization are causing the atmosphere to trap more heat from the sun, so that our planet is gradually warming up. It’s a slow process, taking decades for the world’s temperature to rise even a degree on average, but it’s been going on for awhile now. So even though we are trying to switch to solar power away from things like coal power, our planet will keep warming up. Sea levels will go up, and we’ll have warmer summers and rainier winters. Here in Ireland, it might be nice, as long as you don’t live right on the sea. But in New Mexico, it’s already difficult to grow food and stay cool during the summer, so the extra heat might make it very hard for people to live there. But the important thing about the future is understanding it so you can plan accordingly… for example, by moving to Ireland!

Myths about the Brain

My least favorite brain myth was always the one about the left brain being logical and the right brain being creative. But there are quite a few debunked in this great video: